Commemoration of Doctor Martin Luther King
Feast of the Martyrdom of Blessed Martin
April 4, 2021
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Happy Easter, dear friends. I want to thank my sisters and brothers of the Ministers Alliance for their gracious invitation to be the keynote speaker at this year’s MLK observance. It has been my privilege to be a member of the Alliance for the past 10 years and to be reminded again and again, in so many ways, of the depth of commitment of these good pastors to being servants of the Kingdom of God.
In 1968 the Episcopal Church declared Martin Luther King a saint of the Church. Given the present intensification of racist vitriol and actions, and the continuing systemic oppression of people of color, as well as the emergence of the Black Live Matter movement, it is most timely that we once again raise up the legacy of this holy man of God.
May our commemoration of Blessed Martin, be an occasion marked by a renewal of our minds, hearts and wills in the direction of those choices that define us as human beings. Human beings who strive to live our lives from a place of deep integrity and as authentic disciples of those inspiring prophets who have gone before.
We must be renewed, and in our renewal, we must be strengthened and galvanized to face the many continuing challenges to justice. And I say justice because, even as we remain so focused on the pandemic and its relief, we are mindful that the pandemic has compelled us to recognize that even a deadly virus honors the far more deadly structures of injustice we embrace as our normal. These structures have left the poor and people of color in a place of greater vulnerability than the rest.
When I think of Blessed Martin, I think of the prophets. Prophets – not in the guise of those who foretell the future, but rather as those who look deeply into the goings on in the present moment and discern and address where God is acting, and where He would have us join Him in action, that we might co-create a different tomorrow.
Martin’s life was fueled by and bore witness to a powerful prophetic legacy that spanned the ages between Isaiah and John the Baptist. These prophetic voices, and most especially the voice of Jesus, who Blessed Martin believed to be both a prophet and more than a prophet, captured his heart, formed his conscience, and animated his spirit. From his prophetic faith roots Blessed Martin rose up and stood among us with nobility and humility, strength and gentleness, power and vulnerability.
God called Martin to be a prophet in our generation and laid upon his shoulders the very same mantle as those prophets who preceded him. Martin spoke with passion and conviction about the priority of justice within the mystery of God as it relates to the very core of our humanity.
Martin’s God is a God of justice. He is a God whose will it is to rectify what is unjust. Martin embodied the admonition of the Prophet Amos, who said, “This is what the Lord requires, that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
For Martin there was no possibility of authentic worship and of an authentic relationship with God that is not informed by, or that does not participate in, this over aching moral directive and imperative of sacred scripture. We remember his words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice”.
We can remain deaf and blind to what is going on around us. We can rely upon our tremendous psychological capacity for denial. We can distract ourselves with meaningless preoccupations that have no ultimacy attached to them. We can fill our lives with all that is shallow and hollow. Worst of all, we can be active or passive co-operators in the machinery of injustice that is always tearing human beings apart and grinding them into the dust. We can buy the lies and the script that conservative political and pseudo-religious bodies seek to substitute for the truth, or we can face and confront the reality of EVIL in our day and in our time.
And that is what we are talking about. We are talking about EVIL. This is a stretch for those who live the experience of insolated privilege based on the color of their skin or the leverage that their wealth affords them, and for those raised in a society that bathes itself in the rhetoric of self-appreciation and self-congratulation – in other words, for those for whom the world works just as it is.
But the EVIL that is injustice, is very real and is very cruel. Its punishing and killing ways touch the lives of far too many, for men and women of good will to allow themselves to remain untroubled by it and unresponsive to it, even if we have to be dragged to that place.
When we talk about any justice related issue, we are not just talking about alternative strategies and policies, different reasoned approaches to issues, or competing opinions about possible viable solutions to problems. We are talking about human suffering, in most cases unnecessary, unwarranted and even contrived human suffering, and, most certainly an absence of compassion.
To call out evil, to resist it with every fiber of one’s being, to make no peace with oppression, and to engage the possibility of becoming its victim as one strives to enter into and identify with the lived experience of those who suffer oppression was, for Martin, his sacred duty as a man of Judeo-Christian faith.
For the prophets it is all about justice and judgment—next to, and not behind, mercy and compassion. The God of the prophets isn’t concerned with whether people are following all the rites and rituals or obeying all the rules and regulations. He wants to see them put their hearts into their actions and behave with devotion and sincerity.
The God of the prophets isn’t excoriating people for failing to say their prayers. He’s taking them to task for only offering Him lip-service, and for failing to treat the most vulnerable among us, particularly, the poor, the disenfranchised, captured in those iconic widows and orphans so frequently referenced in the scriptures, and the refugees and sojourners in our land. For failing to treat these with compassion and for failing to make a sacrificial offering of our lives to secure justice on their behalf.
The Prophet Isaiah said, “Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow, care for the orphan and welcome and love the sojourner among you, giving him food, clothing and shelter.”
When she became aware of her pregnancy, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Queen of Prophets, echoed their cry with these words, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts and has put down the mighty from their thrones; he has raised up those of low degree; and has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
When He preached his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus picked up the scroll and read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, the lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed”.
The Judeo-Christian scriptures are riven with God’s outrage at the oppression of the most vulnerable, and with directives that we embrace and suffer that outrage with God and act on behalf of His great work of restoring justice.
We have too long indulged ourselves in religious expressions that can allow us to feel coddled by God. Yes, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us and we are to delight and find our peace in that blessed assurance, but it cannot and must not end there. We must love our neighbor, the other, and especially the different other, as ourselves. God continues to demand and require justice between and among us, as the sign of our sincerity in our worship of Him.
On January 21st we were rid of an administration that had assaulted the poor, nurtured the greed of the rich, and violated the demands and requirements of justice. As a rioting mob storming the capital is rightly judged as treason in this nation, such embodiments of moral degeneracy are rightly judged as treason in the Kingdom of God. The departing administration fostered and served injustice by design and much like the Klan, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and their numerous allies, are the army of the mythical Satan.
Even as the new administration presents itself, in some ways, as more progressive, then middle of the road, it will need the passion and the prophetic voice that only we can bring to bear that tomorrow might actually be significantly different than yesterday. We need a paradigm shift and not merely a cosmetic shift.
For example, we cannot allow even well-intentioned and good-hearted leaders to feel that they will have achieved a significant economic milestone by raising the minimum wage to $15 and hour. A $15 an hour minimum wage will only continue the servitude of 86% of the population that lives from paycheck to paycheck, without economic breathing space to live healthy human lives. To live lives in which time and energy can be spent on those things that are most important, like raising children and sustaining them with healthy food, adequate housing, and quality time with their parents. Today nothing less than $25 an hour can be considered a living wage – and a wage the satisfies the requirements of justice.
Jesus was not a conservative. He was not a liberal. He was not a progressive. Jesus was most definitely a radical.
The prophets preached that God lives in the poor. Jesus confirmed this identification. He said, “What you do unto the least among you, you do to me.” And that same God would empower the poor to demand and require justice in His name and would enlist our agency and advocacy on their behalf. Our worship is sincere if we genuinely want God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done. And we want this to happen first of all in our hearts, in our lives, in our imaginations and in our dreams. Remember Martin who declared, “I have a dream.” Well, Martin’s worship was sincere.
Martin will always be remembered for his non-violent campaign to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But we also want to remember that his dream went beyond racial equality and harmony. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and until he was murdered, Martin devoted himself to being a voice for all the poor, the majority of whom were white. It belongs to us to share in the great work of bringing forth justice, God’s will for the poor and those who are oppressed.
We stare on a daily basis into the face of evil. And there can only ever be one response to evil, and that response must be resistance, through any and every non-violent means at our disposal. To fail to resist is to be complicit. To pretend it is not our problem is to deceive ourselves.
Yes, to resist evil is to go to the edge and to put ourselves at risk. But is this not the very place where God is most present? When we risk becoming vulnerable with those who are most vulnerable, we then enter the Holy of Holies. We enter that sacred space of self-giving love that alone is able to transform us into those bearers of light, like Blessed Martin, that God intends all of us to be. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and advocates. We best honor the memory of the righteous prophets who have preceded us, grow into the depth of our humanity, and become holy as God is holy, by making those very choices that put ourselves at risk.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna